Friday, March 27, 2009

Don't Drink the Kool Aid: A Bit About Formative Years

Yesterday I found myself persistently humming bits and pieces of a melody as I went about my day...the same bits over and over again. But what was the song? Couldn't quite figure it out, but couldn't get it out of my head either. As the day progressed more notes and a couple of phrases fell into place, and I finally discovered, to my own amazement, that I had been singing an old hymn.

I grew up churchy. Real churchy. And not regular, Baptist church on the corner every Sunday churchy, but all encompassing "way of life", live, breathe, wake, sleep for The Church churchy. The Church was the Worldwide Church of God, widely considered a cult, complete with charismatic leader, laws about what to eat, wear and do, dire, impending consequences for breaking said laws, our own hymns, holy days, literature and even our own colleges, and most importantly of all, a ticking time bomb doomsday prophesy that was going to take place within our lifetimes (at which time all you people that made up "the world" would perish in "the war to end all wars" and the few and the righteous would be swiftly transported to "the place of safety", commonly believed to be know that place where Indy finds the grail cup in Indiana Jones and the Last seriously, I kid you not).

Now the purpose of this blog post is not to get all "O woe is my screwed up childhood" on you. It could have been better, it could have been worse. I at least ended up with some amusing cocktail stories.

It has been a very long time since I disassociated myself from The Church and began working through all the attendant issues that came with growing up that way. These days I generally feel pretty well adjusted...and happy. I think a lot about where I am, and where I am going, with very few thoughts spared for the far distant past. So it was a bit of a surprise to find myself, humming that blast from the past purple hymnal tune, even more of a surprise to realize, as the day went on, and it drifted back up to the surface of my mind fragment, by fragment like the flotsam from some long submerged wreck...that I could remember nearly the whole thing!

I can't remember what I just ate for breakfast. I have been known to forget my own phone number with an alarmingly Alzheimers-like frequency. I have read entire books, that are almost like new to me when I pick them up again a couple of years later. Yet here is this song, sung in rotation with about 100 others, on various long Saturday afternoons of my childhood, that has somehow been indelibly recorded in the deep recesses of my brain. Apparently you can take the girl out of the cult, but you can never quite take the cult out of the girl. I guess that's why they call them your formative years. For better or for worse, growing up in The Church is an unshakable part of what makes me, me.

This got me thinking about the habits, experiences and exposures that we are helping to create for our sons during their formative years. When they were really little, I tied myself up in knots over having them listen to just the right Mozart songs at just the right developmental window, in order to grow their brains just so (I know, gag.). But since they've started school it often feels like we're just running to keep up, rather than making enough mindful choices...fill in this form, call this person, break up a squabble, help with spelling homework, dinner, break up a squabble, try to tidy up a bit, zone out exhausted in front of the computer, bedtime routine, more squabbling (they are twins!) etc. Still, along the way, they have been exposed to all their dad and my nerdy interests, done some fun stuff, seen some pretty good examples of types of human behaviour good and bad (thankfully mostly good) and all this cobbled together will be their deep foundation. It bears some more consideration, I think, these remaining formative years and what we choose for the bits that are within our control.

So the hymn in my head was a good reminder of how indelibly marked each of us are with the habits and experiences of those years. Not trapped by them like victims. I can still choose whether to remain angry, or to hum that tune with some humour...but there is no denying that it is there in my head.

(I wonder what exactly will become a part of E & L's emotional landscapes? I'd put money on the boy wizard and the Skywalker clan looming large for them. Cool. I'm wagering that the simple morals in those stories will do way more good than yet another convoluted Bible interpretation any day.)


  1. Now you see, my title for this post would have been: 'You can take the girl out of the cult, but you can never quite take the cult out of the girl...'

    Another lovely post, Miss E.

  2. i almost bought into the ritual aspect of church when i was small. i asked to go with my grandparents when they went, but as i got older, i discovered the hypocrisy of the whole deal... gossip, adultery, alcoholism, sexual abuse.... the pious congregation left a lot to be desired to my young mind, so i stopped going. my interest in saints subsided.

    humanity is a flawed concept, and is better for it. organized religion, to ME, means to erase that glorious flaw and make a smooth and cold lie out of life. it's taking the need for order to the utmost, forgetting we need chaos to be balanced and happy. plus, their music? i'm really sorry you can't get that out of your head. make some room for some Judas Priest! you got another thing comin'....

  3. This really makes me think of this autobiography I read last year...but I can't for the life of me think of her name or the title..she grew up Baptist and as a married mom, had slowly a change of heart and found her spirituality morphing into something different all together.

    I like rituals, I am naturally inclined so, but of course! I'm a writer. We are like that.

  4. @Craig: There's no denying all the negative in organized religion, as my own childhood would be a shining example of, but I do know people who find enough good to make church life worth their while. A sense of community, a shared sense of purpose, spiritual guidance etc. Some even look at it as a haven, a bit of a respite from the crazy of every day life...kind of hard to understand for those of us whose church experiences were anything but a haven! But I don't want to dishonour those who do find value in it by painting all religion with the big crazy brush, although for me personally, it's brought little but confusion and strife. Maybe it's just my Pollyanna side, but I still have lingering hope in the idea of a group of people coming together to worship and serve, and good coming of it??? No, yes...maybe...maybe the Unitarian Universalists? Maybe just some sort of Humanist meeting? I dunno, the thought of even looking for that Holy Grail of a spiritual group with which to grow and thrive feels a bit scary and tiring. In the end, a spiritual group with the size of one is the ultimate truth and reality anyway.
    (and did any of this have anything to do with your original comment or am I just on a tangent? I think the latter. lol So many reasons why I don't often take the cork outta the religion bottle, stuff just starts spilling out. :)

    @Maggie May: I like rituals too. There is comfort in them. I didn't mind remembering the song. It made me think, but it made me grin a bit too...I tried to spend some time thinking about the good bits way back when, because there's almost always good bits, and the ritual of singing those songs from that durned purple hymn book brought a certain peace with it's rhythm and routine.

  5. E, your writing never ceases to cause a flood of thought or insight. First, I just read an article on the way a teen's brain syanptically prunes to pave way for the last growth spurt; that many childhood memories are lost so that new pathways may grow. It put some sense to the mottled, incomplete memory bits I can retreive. Second, the hymns! I was a seeker, raised Methodist, but my parents let me experience any other church or religion with my friends, Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian. I could only connect to the music, not the dogma, the social or the hypocrisy. Anyway, I was such a music nerd that I sang in the choir with the grownups through middle school, maybe into high school, cant quite remember, lol. It's not like there were any other kids there, going to practice, wearing the robes. It gave me peace and hope to hear the lovely harmonies resonate together.
    Anyway, eventual falling out, loss of interest in established religion, construction of my own self determined spirituality, and yet I surprised myself by buying an old Methodist hymnal from the used book sale a while back. What fun I have had with those lovely songs and my piano and my rusty memory. My point being, despite the obvious unpleasantries of the cult upbringing, at least you have some lovely music in your head. Some synapses that did not prune away in your youth. I'm completely sure that your little ones will have great memories left after their prunings. And your keys, get used to looking for them dearie, it just keeps getting trickier and trixier to find them!
    Thanks for another deeply touching and sharing post.

  6. Can I just say, there are communities out there which are not hypocritical and embrace what is referred to as 'New Thought.' I belong to one here in Calgary, and if I may be so bold, I would say that it *is* a group of people who come together to worship and serve, and much good comes of it. I like it because it's non-traditional and everyone is welcome. We start every Sunday by guided meditation and for me, it has been a haven from my crazy life and the over-critical jugement in my head. No hypocrisy, no judgement, no piousness. They're out there, these places.

  7. K, that's wonderful for you! I am so glad that you are finding that haven for yourself.

    And Mel, teenage brain pruning, eh? That 'splains a lot (and here I thought it was all those drugs ;)

  8. You are a wonderful writer, and I love how you turned the hymn from your childhood bubbling up from your subconscious into inspiration about parenting and the formative years. Really wonderful.


  9. Also, I agree - the hymns from childhood churchy experiences were good - a nice ritual, a uniting of uplifted voices - very inspiring. I grew up Conservative Baptist, and we had some great old hymns. It is lovely to "find" and pick out the "good bits" from memories - a very positive and healthy habit of mind, versus dwelling on the negative and bad, as some do (*cough* ex-boyfriend *cough*)


  10. Thanks NG! :)
    I do agree agree concentrating on those good bits is the only way to go. I spent my fair share of time in my 20s being angry / feeling sorry for myself / picking over the minutiae of why my childhood wasn't so great and how that screwed me up...and now I want to be done. Time to concentrate on the good stuff, and there was lots of good stuff. Thank goodness!


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